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Why is the West ahead of Islam?

(this is an abridged version of an interview conducted by Beata Janowska with Professor Marek Gensler, of the University of Łódź (Poland). The interview was published in Gazeta Wyborcza on 21 March 2016. The translation and the choice of images are mine).

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Henri Bechard Interior of the Amrou mosque ca 1870

In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, a question arose in the Arab and Latin civilisations of what to do with philosophy. The response was different in each of these two civilisations. In your view, it was a key moment which paved the paths of the Muslim world and Europe. In the eleventh century, the Arabs were far superior to the Latins in their knowledge of philosophy.

Yes, the Arabs knew philosophy incomparably better than the Latins because they inherited ancient philosophy directly from the Greeks. When they conquered Egypt in the seventh century, the Mouseion in Alexandria was still a major intellectual institution of the ancient world. The legacy of Aristotle and Plato, or rather of the whole philosophical tradition, was very much alive in Alexandria at that time.

The Latins hardly knew Aristotle, because only a few of his minor texts were translated into Latin before the sixth century. Previously, there was no need for translations because everyone who dealt with philosophy knew the Greek language. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed, and the dark ages began between the sixth and tenth century, contacts with the Greek world had weakened. People no longer understood Greek and all the important texts were lost or were in Byzantium and therefore inaccessible. Nevertheless, Aristotle was still believed to be a great philosopher because he appears as such in the works of St. Augustine.

There were at that time important philosophical centres in Syria.

This is another story, they were created by refugees from Athens. In 529, the emperor Justinian ordered the closure of pagan schools, or more precisely, forbade non-Christians to teach in them. This resulted in the transfer of the Alexandrian school to Christians and that transfer occurred through an arrangement between Christians and pagans. In Athens, however, the philosophical school was closed because the Athenians did not want to negotiate with Christians and preferred to emigrate to Hellenised Syria which was then controlled by the Persians.

In Syria, they translated Neoplatonic texts first into Syriac and then, when the Arabs took over those lands, into Arabic. This work continued in Baghdad, the new capital of the Muslim empire, where a school was established at the court of the caliph. From the fifth to the eighth century, interesting things were done in philosophy in the Eastern Roman Empire, of which the Latins were not aware of because of their separation from Byzantium. In contrast, the Arab conquerors of the Roman provinces in the south and east of the Mediterranean showed great interest in the philosophical thought of the conquered population.

Did the Arabs learn Greek?

They employed Greeks and Syrians as translators. Syrians were often were bilingual and, as their Semitic language is close to the Arab language, it was not particularly difficult for them to translate philosophical texts into Arabic. Porphyry, the disciple of Plotinus, was a Syrian. There were schools established at the courts of Muslim rulers because the Arabs, unlike the Latins, believed that the monarch should be educated. The Arabs accepted the Greek ideal of an enlightened ruler. The sons of emirs and sultans had to learn philosophy, often from textbooks written specially for them.

In Islam, education was not associated with religion and science was secular in nature. Islam did not develop theology in the Western sense. When Muslim lawyers needed logic, they learned it from ancient thinkers, while doctors studied biology from the same source. However, most Muslims did not think that they could learn anything from pagans about God.

Why did philosophy and theology come close to each other in the West?

Unlike Islam and Judaism, Christianity treats its holy texts as dictated by the Holy Spirit to specific people at a specific time. That is why they have a supernatural element, but also human. The task of the theologian is to extract the revealed truth from a text written down by a human being. The holy text must be freed from the accretions of human origin, and expressed again to be understood by a new generation. St. Augustine said that no one understands fully the message of holy books. Acculturation of the holy texts is therefore necessary for every believer.

AlbertusMagnus

Tommaso da Modena Albertus Magnus 1352

Do you mean that one has to interpret Biblical texts anew in order to reconcile them with the level of knowledge and way of understanding of the world at a particular time?

Christians were aware of this from the very beginning. The first theological school was established in Alexandria by Clement at the beginning of the third century, when paganism still prevailed. Origen, who received solid philosophical and philological education at that school, distinguished three levels of interpretation of the revealed text. The first is the somatic or bodily level which involved a literal reading of the simple truths such as the Ten Commandments. The second level, which is psychic, refers to the soul. At this level, moral truths are dissected from the sacred texts for a particular time and place. For example, in the Old Testament, polygamy was allowed, and now it is not. Why? After all, it is not possible for God to change His commandments and indeed, He did not change them, only Man learned to read them differently. That’s what God allowed at the times of Abraham, it became unacceptable when mankind developed new sensitivities. People now understand that having four or five wives is a bad idea. It’s better to have one, lifelong companion. Moral progress affects the interpretation of the biblical texts whose meaning can be adapted to a particular period in the history of mankind.

The third and highest level of Origen’s scheme is called pneumatic as it involves the spirit (Gr. pneuma) and not the soul. At this level, the Bible is being interpreted allegorically to gain knowledge of Man as a creature of God and of God himself. This is the theology in the strict sense i.e. the speculative theology. This is what Christianity managed to gain through philosophy. Without philosophical conceptualisation, we would be doomed to a literal reading of the Bible.

As it is in Islam and Judaism?

In Islam and Judaism, the sacred text is treated as revealed in full, without the human element. In the Torah, which contains the Mosaic laws, there are rules governing nearly all aspects of life and there is not much room for speculation, though Judaism is still much more open than Islam. On the other hand, the Arabs believed that as long as religion does not intersect with science, everything is fine. Religious Islamic law is disconnected from ethics. Metaphysics is also absent. Muslims rejected it as a tool to know God, because there is no place in Islam for a discussion about God as the first cause.

Initially, Muslims showed great enthusiasm for philosophy and there was even a kind of speculative Muslim theology developed by scholars of the Koran, Mutazilites, but later philosophy was considered as unhelpful in spiritual development. Muslims began to wonder whether the extraction of pure knowledge from the Qur’an about God and creation is indeed necessary and whether it leads to salvation. Maybe this is an expression of arrogance of reason which leads people astray? Christians in the West also have such doubts. The eleventh century is a time of great dispute about the value of philosophy, both among Christians and Muslims.

These concerns are best expressed by St. Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111). 

Damian, a Benedictine monk, came to the conclusion that the development of philosophy went too far. Young and ambitious monks had the audacity to discuss issues such as, What it means that God is omnipotent. Is He omnipotent in such a way that even the principle of contradiction does not apply to Him? Damian was irritated by such deliberations because, being well educated, he sensed that the philosophy began to drift dangerously, freeing itself from theology, and soon it could happen that the philosophy would begin to dictate the terms to theology.

Did Damian believe that the teaching of philosophy should be forbidden?

He wanted to see theology above philosophy. This order was determined by the Augustinian concept of goods, according to which the knowledge of God is the supreme good, so that what serves this aim is also good, including philosophy. However, when philosophy ceases to be a means to this end, and sets itself other goals, it becomes evil because it distracts man from God. Damian worried that philosophy began to separate itself from theology as an autonomous discipline and to impose scientific requirements on theology. He wanted philosophy to be ancilla theologiae, a servant of theology. If philosophy does not want to play this role, it should be discarded.

Al-Ghazali rejected philosophy for slightly different reasons.

Both Damian and Al-Ghazali were scholars and long-time teachers of philosophy. Al-Ghazali studied, commented and taught philosophy until he had a kind of mystical vision that changed his life. He gave up teaching, went on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and travelled a lot. He abandoned teaching to venture on the mystical search for God. In his famous work The Incoherence of the Philosophers, he criticised the philosophical approach to God as erroneous and of little value. He did not say that philosophy is bad but that it is inferior to mysticism. Such views were voiced in Islam before, however, it was Al-Ghazali who triggered the loss of interest in philosophy among Muslims who gradually abandoned speculative theology which anyway was in an early stage of development. Interestingly, Al-Ghazali also distrusted the systematic study of Qu’ranic law and the emphasis on orthodoxy by its guardians. He maintained that Sufis, or mystics, are closer to God.

Prayer_in_Cairo_1865

Jean-Leon Gerome Prayer in Cairo 1865 

Did Al-Ghazali recommend the abandonment of philosophy for religion?

In the eleventh century, Islamic mysticism went beyond its religious frame, with eminent Sufis suggesting that God is too great to be constrained within one religion. In all religions, mystics are censored because of individualism in their approach to faith. Nowadays, Islamic fundamentalists blow up the tombs of famous Sufis because individualism makes Sufism heretical. Christianity experienced similar problems, as mysticism often leads to heresy.

In the eleventh century, philosophy and science were synonymous. For as much as one could grasp a thing scientifically, one could only describe it in the concepts of philosophy. Even medicine was in fact the practical use of natural philosophy. The emancipation of science occurred in later centuries. A major step on this road was the appearance of universities in Europe in the thirteenth century, with the autonomy of studies and research in various departments. At the faculty of liberal arts, people were free to philosophise in a secular context; they were even forbidden to deal with religious issues. They were only bound by the principles of correct reasoning and by the correspondence between thought and reality. Interestingly, students at the faculty of theology engaged in thought experiments by using the procedures of so-called secundum imaginationem, which are exercises to imagine an entirely hypothetical situation such as, for example, God commanding us to hate Him. This idea was later developed by philosophers and eventually incorporated into the study of nature as an idealisation, that is the representation of a hypothetical state of nature stripped of certain elements which are non-essential from the point of view of the hypothesis under investigation.

For the development of science, it is important to develop complicated theories and to define concepts. Without philosophy and theology, there might not be such giants of science as Newton and Leibniz.

That’s right. Theology was a discipline for pioneering a new type of scientific hypotheses, which were later tested empirically. In science, verification was carried out by experiment, while in theology it was affected by reference to the tradition of religious dogma and the examination whether new theses are consistent with it, or lead to contradictions.

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Laurentius de Voltolina

If the West rejected philosophy at that time, would science also be rejected? Was it a decisive point in the fate of Western civilisation?

Yes indeed, although it is difficult for us to accept that this is the case because for the past three centuries we got accustomed to the idea that science is the avant-garde of knowledge and theology is of little consequence. But in the Middle Ages, science found protection under the wings of theology. Regrettably, people now see the the Middle Ages in pejorative terms. Reputation of the Middle Ages suffered greatly during the Enlightenment. Most people nowadays cherish the Renaissance which supposed to be a period of the restoration of antique tradition. In fact, modern science is the legacy of antiquity and the Middle Ages, in which the achievements of antiquity were enriched and developed further.

Mystical knowledge also involves intellect which is however engaged in contemplation rather than speculation. Mystical experience cannot be shared with others. Unlike philosophy, mysticism cannot be taught. Mystical knowledge does not require a conceptual apparatus because the mystical union is inexpressible.

In the West, the position of philosophy was defended by St. Anselm (1033-1109), the archbishop of Canterbury.

The authority of Anselm was instrumental in the continued duration of philosophy as an inalienable component of education. He strongly supported the autonomy of philosophy. Justifiably, Anselm is called the father of scholasticism. He claimed that philosophy is absolutely necessary as an element of education and without education one cannot acquire the knowledge of God.

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Ludwig Deutsch The Scribe 1911

In the Arab world, science was defended by Averroes (1126-1198).

Averroes was aware of the damage caused to philosophy by Al-Ghazali, and in response to it he wrote The Incoherence of the Incoherence in which he provided arguments against mysticism. According to Averroes, philosophy it is the highest form of theology because only philosophy uses abstract terms, being the subtlest and most sophisticated of all possible forms of expressions as the language of the abstract. Philosophy is capable of expressing matters concerning God as the supreme cause in the fullest and most precise way. Averroes did not differ in that from Aristotle who argued that philosophy leads to the knowledge of God as the first mover. By knowing the causes of things we attain perfect knowledge.

But he failed.

Averroes could play the same role in Islam as Anselm did in Christianity but he had insufficient authority as a religious thinker. He was a kadim, or Islamic judge, a person of great importance but not important enough to save philosophy. He was accused of the lack of piety, because he claimed that philosophy, not religion, is the surest path towards God. As a result, he had to flee from his native Cordoba to Africa. Averroes was treated as a heretic. After him, the authority of philosophy crumbled to dust and even his pupil Ibn Arabi abandoned philosophy for mysticism. Averroes is the last great scholar and philosopher of the Arab world.

In the East, there were no universities in the Western sense because there was no room for autonomous faculties. The University in Cairo, founded in the tenth century, is only a religious school. Over the following centuries, only remnants of philosophy needed by medics and lawyers were preserved in Islam. It is a sad paradox that, when in the twelfth century the Latins literally rushed to the Arab philosophy, and the great Arab scholars were read with admiration in Europe, the thinkers of the Muslim world already switched to mysticism. When universities flourished in Western Europe and became institutions of higher learning in the full sense of the word, science almost completely froze in the Arab world.

We can say that in the relay race of human progress, the baton was taken by another player at the very last moment.

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Knowledge and its enemies

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Christianity. An introduction in 1000 words

Creación_de_Adán_(Miguel_Ángel)

As a syncretic religion, Christianity is difficult to analyse. There is no agreement among Christians themselves as to its essence, hence there are many Christian churches. To probe into Christianity, one has to examine its history.

Within the first few centuries, Christianity originated as a Jewish sect, evolved into a religion with universal aspirations, incorporated Greek philosophical ideas into its doctrine, and became a state religion. Christianity stands therefore on three pillars – Jewish mysticism, Greek philosophy and Roman administration. Correspondingly, its foundation texts are written in three languages – the Old Testament in Hebrew, the New Testament in Greek, while the Latin translation of both texts had been used in the Catholic Church for nearly two millennia.

In Christianity, beliefs are more important than practices. All its Churches make claims to orthodoxy, ie the correct set of beliefs. Christians are indifferent to how they dress and what they eat but focus on what they think. In Judaism and Islam, orthopraxy prevails hence there are strict dietary and clothing rules in both religions while beliefs are relatively simple. In Islam, a declaration of faith is sufficient to become a Muslim. In Judaism, one is born a Jew.

Christianity has strong rational and humanistic elements. These elements are so dominant that some critics of Christianity deny that it is a religion. En arche en ho Logos, kai ho Logos en pros ton Theon, kai Theos en ho Logos, John writes in his Gospel. For the Greeks, Logos meant the underlying order of reality. John’s passage can be read as “In the beginning was Reason, and Reason was with God, and Reason was God”. Christian God can therefore be understood as deified Logos, or Reason, combined with the personal God of the Jews.

Socrates asks whether that which is holy is loved by the gods because it is holy, or is it holy because it is loved by the gods. He answers that the gods only recognise the holiness which already exists in holy things. This thought became the basis of the Christian theology. It equates God with the Good and Necessity. God is benevolent. What follows is that God is not omnipotent. God cannot appear again and declare that the Decalogue will now include new commandments urging believers to rob, rape and murder. Similarly, God can only do things that are not contradictory or impossible. God cannot change what I ate yesterday for breakfast.

One of the papal encyclicals is titled Fides and Ratio, faith and reason, and this combination makes Christianity a peculiar religion. The centrality of Aristotelianism in the Catholic Church prompted Russian emigre philosopher Lev Shestov to declare that Catholicism is a rationalist philosophy masquerading as a religion. Shestov expands on Dostoevsky’s criticism of the Papacy in the legend of the Grand Inquisitor in Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky accuses the Church of corrupting the original message of God that his kingdom is not of this world, and sacrificing freedom for earthly welfare.

“Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God”. Pope Benedict XVI used this statement by Byzantine emperor Manuel II Paleologus to reiterate the Church’s attachment to Reason. The Church cannot accept Tertulian’s Credo quia absurdum because it denigrates Reason. God can be both known through Revelation and rational thought. It is therefore legitimate to seek rational proofs of God’s existence. Shestov writes that Catholics believe that they have the key to the universe and that that key is Reason.

Fouquet_Madonna

Jean Fouquet Virgin and Child Surrounded by Angels, ca 1452

The other central aspect of Christianity is its anthropocentrism. The New Testament says that Jesus was sent to Earth to die for our sins in an act of atonement. Jesus became Man and suffered as a human being for the sake of humanity. His human characteristics are stressed to such an extent that this may not be the case of God becoming Man but Man being celebrated as God. In Western art, Jesus is portrayed first as a baby with his loving mother, then as a merciful teacher and, finally, as a humiliated and suffering individual who is executed together with common criminals. If a Martian landed on Earth and visited art museums and Catholic churches, he would have concluded that Christianity is the religion of Man. Catholicism acquires feminine characteristics through the cult of Mary, the mother of God. The Church is the Bride of Christ. Sensualism of certain saints verges on eroticism. Religious themes in painting, but also in music, provide ample evidence of Christians celebrating beauty in themselves, also physical beauty. There is disarming sweetness in cantatas of Bach and Vivaldi or paintings of the Virgin Mary with baby Jesus.

By worshiping their God, Christians worship the order in the universe and themselves as deified human beings. Christianity is therefore prone to be perceived in human, rational and, ultimately, secular terms. It is only seemingly a paradox that Christian societies had evolved into modern welfare states. The original Christian promise has found its fulfilment in a secular society which treats Christian principles as its own. Even the pessimistic doctrine of the original sin has turned out to be a blessing, so to speak. Man is born in sin and incapable of perfection. If an individual transgresses against divine and human laws he will be dealt with according to the severity of his transgression, with the aim of rehabilitation rather than revenge. Among Western societies, only the US retains the capital punishment. In Islam, striving for perfection is a religious obligation and those who fail in jihad are harshly punished.

Christianity is unique among religions. It encompasses rationalism and humanism and this combination places it on the antipodes of Islam and orthodox Judaism which are both strictly theocentric. Orthodox Jews and Muslims are oriented towards their holy texts as homini unius libri, or men of one book. Judaism has its reformed branch which originated in Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment, and mainstream Judaism embraced modernity to the same extent as mainstream Christianity. The fact that most Jews had lived in diaspora in Europe for two thousand years is reflected in the history of Israel which is a state with Western institutions, although with complications of geopolitical nature.

Islam though is past-oriented and anti-modern and will remain so until it revisits the dispute of Ibn-Rushd (Averroes), an Aristotelian philosopher, with Al-Ghazali, an enemy of Aristotelianism. Islam diverged from Christianity when Al-Ghazali accused the philosophers of blasphemy and infidelity, punishable by death. Al-Ghazali killed the flourishing Islamic civilisation which abandoned Reason and reverted to Revelation, discouraging an interaction with visible and tangible reality and focusing instead on the holy text as the primary aspect of reality.

Christianity chose an opposite path when it opted for Aristotelianism as its core in the thirteenth century, and it made all the difference for Europe and its outposts on other continents. Modern civilisation can only be built on three pillars – rationalism, empiricism and humanism. There are plenty of aspects of Christianity that can be criticised but, on balance, Christianity has played a positive role in the history of the world.

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Happiness or greatness?

man or  mannn

 

Broadly speaking, societies seek either greatness or happiness. These two goals are articulated quite early in the history of human thought by Plato and Aristotle.

Aristotle writes in Politics that every community seeks some good. For Plato, that good is the pursuit of an ideal, whereas Aristotle thinks that it is happiness. Plato believes in the perfectibility of man; Aristotle is sceptical whether the ideal state can be attained, considering human weaknesses.

In The Republic, Plato describes an ideal state in which guardians rule over a society divided into groups according to people’s abilities. The purpose of the state is not individual happiness but the creation of an ideal community.

In Politics, Aristotle criticises Plato’s ideal state point by point on the grounds that that state does not agree with common sense. According to Aristotle, Plato makes people unhappy by expecting too much from them. He sees in Plato’s model of social organisation the influences of the Spartan constitution, which is ‘adverse to the happiness of the state’. Plato ignores human weaknesses. His project is impractical because it is based on a false understanding of human nature.

The end of the state, says Aristotle, is to create conditions in which people will lead happy lives without troubling themselves with Plato’s unattainable ideals because ‘perfection in everything can hardly be expected’. Perfectionism can only lead to despair. All utopian projects invariably fail.

Modern history of Europe and its outposts on other continents shows a clear tendency towards the distrust of utopian projects, at least from the times of the Enlightenment. Happiness features prominently in the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness … it is the Right of the People to … institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Europeans and Americans live nowadays in open societies in which citizens clearly opt for the principles of liberalism, pragmatism and utilitarianism. There is little appetite for grand and idealistic projects. Millions of people died because of idealism of national socialists and communists.

And yet utopianism is still very much alive in Islam. Islamists are Platonists of the most vulgar kind. They want to restore the ideal state of affairs from centuries ago, regardless of the cost in terms of human suffering. Their thinking is strictly theocentric. They profess their commitment to creating God’s kingdom on earth. Like national socialists and communists before them, Islamists see themselves as idealists. Their extreme idealism though is nothing but nihilism because it sacrifices individual human beings for the sake of an imaginary deity.

The argument between Plato and Aristotle now manifests itself again in the most cruel manner.

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